World War II has fascinated me since I was a child. The lore attached to the conflict fired my imagination, and fun period action films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Rocketeer only added to my fascination. To my young mind, it was the ultimate battle between good and evil, where the lines couldn’t be any clearer.
As I grew older, and I began to look into the history of the era, my fascination matured and transformed into admiration and respect for the men and women who fought that war. It was a time of great sacrifice and hardship – something that hasn’t really been seen since.
Five Came Back was an outstanding look at a part of the World War II-era I was not familiar with. This film celebrates the important contributions of the American film industry to the war effort – specifically the wartime cinematic accomplishments of five legendary directors: Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life), John Huston (The African Queen), George Stevens (Shane), William Wyler (Ben-Hur), and John Ford (The Searchers). These men showed the war to the public, garnered support for the conflict, and literally recorded history. Some of their footage even sealed the fate of the Nazi war criminals after the fight was over.
Five Came Back is not just an amazing portrait of the courage of those five filmmakers – who braved everything from bombings in the Pacific to the D-Day invasion to bring footage back to the people, and came back with the horrors seared into their memories. It caused me to think about today’s entertainment industry, how far things have fallen in the past seven decades, and what true bravery actually looks like.
The Good: The Stories
The war stories of these filmmakers were probably my favorite part of this documentary. These were extremely brave men who volunteered to put themselves in harm’s way to help their country – leaving extremely lucrative careers and loving families. I had no idea how crucial the military’s film department was to the war effort until I watched this film.
It was great to see Laurent Bouzereau as the director of this series. I’ve been a fan of his for quite a while. He produced, wrote and directed some of the best bonus material and documentaries on the DVDs and Blu-rays of some of Hollywood’s greatest films. Bouzereau is a true film fan, and his enthusiasm gives each of his projects a certain authenticity and excitement. Five Came Back was no exception.
Supporting the harrowing stories was outstanding amounts of the filmmakers’ war footage – putting the viewer right in the middle of the battles. With that footage, they crafted compelling stories for the public to see. In fact, several of these wonderful films were themselves released on Netflix at the same time as Five Came Back. Be sure to check them out to supplement your experience.
Today, these films are sometimes snarkily dismissed as mere “propaganda,” but they were much more important than that. They gave the public a reason for fighting, as well as a firsthand account of why we were fighting – especially Capra’s war film series, the aptly-titled Why We Fight. Granted that it was shameful that the War Department suppressed some of the films like Let There Be Light (which examined the psychological effects of war). The public should have had to know that extreme bravery sometimes has costs in the mind.
The modern director interviews were a nice touch. It was interesting to hear the artistic perspectives of these modern masters of movies: Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather), Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park), Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), Paul Greengrass (the Bourne series) and Lawrence Kasdan (Silverado) – each one assigned to a specific World War II director.
They brought some amazing insights into each of the featured directors’ creative processes, and what the war did to their perspectives, based on the commercial films they made both before and after the war. Some of the modern directors actually knew their World War II counterparts, which added another layer of understanding.
The Bad: Little Context
Though the insights of those modern directors were very important to the film and interesting to hear, the comments of actual World War II historians would have added some more context for people not fully aware of the extent of the war from a non-entertainment perspective. Historian comments may have also added a counterbalance to the simplistic bias of some of the modern filmmakers.
Some of the footage was of very poor quality. Not because of its age – though there were some that did have understandable wear and grain because of it. There was a lot of footage that looked like it had been hastily ripped off of YouTube – very pixelated and difficult to make out. It’s not a deal-breaker. I was just surprised that a production of this caliber and pedigree couldn’t afford some better-quality footage.
Bravery and Art
“Give the boys a reason to fight and don’t lie. They must believe it. If they don’t believe it, we’re dead.” Frank Capra
Watching Five Came Back made me think of the stark contrast between the Hollywood culture of the World War II era and the Hollywood culture of today, and the way these generations saw their place in society, exemplified bravery, and even how both generations defined the word “bravery” in their actions.
The World War II filmmakers featured in Five Came Back were truly brave men. They waded through gunfire on the beaches of Normandy, captured footage from hastily-dug pillboxes on Midway Island during an air attack, and recorded the horrors of the Holocaust for the world to see. These men sacrificed their careers and time away from their families to serve their country and use their God-given talents to help the war effort. Not because it was profitable to them (it wasn’t), but because it was their duty as Americans.
Today’s Hollywood elite cannot hold a candle to the bravery of those filmmakers. Yet they are still referred to as “brave” for one meaningless reason or another – be it wearing a garish dress at an event, or wearing nothing at all in a magazine photo spread.
Today, many people (especially celebrities) engage in faux concern and outrage, propagated by social media and insipid protest hashtaggery. It requires little from a person to do and has just as much tangible impact on an event in real time. In many cases, it is insipid virtue-signaling and is an inherently selfish act to make one appear to be concerned and brave when there is no real sacrifice or danger on one’s part. And when celebrities speak out using social media and silly hashtags, they are often lauded for their “bravery.” This is nonsense.
When a star gives a speech advocating for this-or-that while accepting some award, it isn’t so much for the cause, but for their own self-aggrandizement. They want to feel like they matter in some struggle and feel brave for speaking out. That is why I always think back to the bit of advice that Network writer Paddy Chayefsky gave Vanessa Redgrave after she went on a political tirade during her Oscar acceptance speech in 1978:
It isn’t brave and world-changing to speak in a room in which 99.9% of the people ideologically agree with you, or to speak in a country where one won’t be dragged off to a gulag or fined into oblivion for speaking one’s mind. Nor is it brave to wear something silly or provocative for its own sake. These are all acts of intellectual cowardice.
True sacrifice, bravery, and devotion were exemplified by the fighting men and women at home and abroad during World War II. These were people who, by and large, volunteered for service, and that included, at the time, Hollywood producers, directors, and actors. Knowing the culture, I wouldn’t count on as many celebrities today to seriously take up arms or volunteer in some other capacity should the need arise. Some, like the elitist environmentalist phony Leonard DiCaprio, can’t even take their own pet crusades seriously.
Many in Hollywood (and the modern culture as a whole) see make-believe oppression wherever they are – and are quick to anger and outrage over the silliest perceived slights. This is especially true on college campuses, where “safe spaces” are all the rage to protect the students from the rigors of harsh words and ideological disagreement. Few would never actually get in harm’s way or make themselves voluntarily uncomfortable for a worthwhile cause (like the future of western civilization) without a camera there to capture everything.
The Final Word
Five Came Back is well worth your time. It’s an intriguing look at a relatively unknown aspect of this time in history. These talented filmmakers captured humanity at both its most evil and most noble, and the films they made had a profound impact on how the American public experienced World War II.
The five Hollywood directors covered in this film exemplified true courage and sacrifice – using their time and talents to craft stories to inform and inspire the American public and keep hope alive on the home front. The same cannot be said for today’s Hollywood acolytes, who virtue-signal and pontificate more than making actual brave stands and worthy sacrifices.
Five Came Back (2017)
Narrated by Meryl Streep
Written by Mark Harris
Based on his book Five Came Back:
A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War
Directed by Laurent Bouzereau